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Sustainable Table, Part 2: Economics

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Agriculture is a 4.5 billion dollar industry in Oregon, far greater in California, but a lot of that is filtering through larger productions.

Ray Nouguier has been the produce manager at Food For Less in Medford for about 35 years, so he’s got a good handle on stocking the section year round.

“If you limit it to California there are probably several months you wouldn’t have any merchandise,” Nouguier says. “Like the grapes, the squash all comes out of Chile.”

And if you limited it to just a 100 mile radius?

“It would look awful bad,” states Nouguier. “A lot of stuff wouldn’t be available. There are a lot of things that aren’t grown here.”

But over the past two decades, Ray Nouguier says he’s slowly increased produce from local farmers.

“I’ve got half a dozen farmers I buy from regularly. We buy a lot of organic from the local farmers – so it’s picked one day and here the same day,” he says.

Unlike the grocery store, you’ll be hard pressed to find something that isn’t local at a farmers market – though in some cases you will pay more.

The reason food from small farms often costs more isn’t simple. Economists point out on a small local farm, without the large equipment, there’s more physical labor. With a reduced use of hybrids, pesticides and fertilizers, there are fewer products.

With that equation, Steve Sexton, a PhD candidate in Agricultural and Resource Economics, says monocropping wins.

“It’s clear large operations will be able to produce food more cheaply than the local farmer, even after we account for environmental damage,” Sexton explains.

Thrive, which works to connect local consumers with local producers, hopes to see the federal subsides change. Through various means, subsidies make corn and soybean products cheaper.

“Really what the local food movement is encouraging that some of those subsidies go to small farms as well,” says Executive Director of Thrive, Wendy Siporen.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, this year, $11 billion from the government is paid out directly to producers, and Sexton believes the majority of that needs to stay with big-ag.

“So we should let the market decide, and if consumers are willing to pay a premium for 50% of their diets from local production, then so be it,” Sexton states.

Food activists point out spending *your money on an onion grown here, instead of washington, will have a greater impact on our local economy.

“When you are buying directly from a local farmer, that farmer is getting almost all of that dollar,” says Siporen. “When you are buying that green pepper at Winco, that farmer is getting may five cents or nine cents on that dollar.”

It’s an investment many are embracing. Business owner and mother Amanda Higgens says the impact of her dollars is just one of the reasons she stops by the farmers’ market.

“I think there is a huge resurgence in my generation for those types of values,” Higgins says. “It’s important that the money that comes to my business from the community goes back into the community.”

Thrive says there are ways to cut your costs when shopping at a farmers market or through their online services.

“We need to look at buying staples and buying in bulk. And buying fresh produce in season is often less expensive, then items that are highly processed,” Siporen says.

But for just about any consumer, getting the most for their dollar is important; you just have to weight what the “most” is.

“These are the kind of things you weigh in your mind as you are making your food choices and it all adds up,” says Michelle Pryse, a gardener and preserver.

For those on a limited or fixed income, the Oregon Trails Card is accepted at many farmers markets, and can be used online to purchase goods through thrive.

Join us for the final part in our series: find out if a sustainable table is attainable for you family.